Innuendo and birdwatching; a not-so-rare double

He walked into the bar and asked for a double entendre – so I gave him one!

The birdworld is full of innuendos. The Paridae family of course have created numerous imaginative names: Great Tit, Sultan Tit, Stripe-breasted Tit, Sombre Tit, Varied Tit, Turkestan Tit and my favourite the near pornographic White-Necklaced Tit. Then there’s the more enigmatic Tit-Like Dacnis, Mouse-Colored Penduline Tit and Fluffy-Backed Tit-Babbler. (I think I’ve seen one or two of those in various bars).

About half way down to the resort I told G: ‘Elegant tit right there’. And it was an elegant tit, nicely displayed, full frontal. We stopped to look at it for a minute or so. Not exactly something you go home and tell your wife. Nope, G’s wife of course was standing three feet away, and the tit was a Parus elegans, one of 175 or so endemic bird species in the Philippines.

The ornithological meaning of the word tit allegedly has Scandinavian origin but according to wikipedia is derived from 14th century English denominating something small. (We have two regular Parus species in Sweden called –tita. The other members of the Parus genus, save for one, is called –mes, which means wimp. Another great example of Swedish chickenhood).

And if you’re not in the forest looking at tits you can always go to the beach to see the Boobies or Shags.

The word Booby is possibly based on the Spanish slang term bubi, meaning “dunce”, as these birds had a habit of landing on board sailing ships where they were easily captured and eaten. Shag refers to the bird’s crest as in the hairstyle meaning of the word.

What about the ladies? No, there are no hunks, no beefcakes, no Georges’ and no Clooneys. There is an extreme amount of –peckers and –cocks, but to my experience this has never been a key factor in female first impressions towards males. Rather has it been an icon of masculinity thus further emphasizing the chauvinist naming of birds in general. The penis-innuendo birds span from the male-fantasy flavoured Guianan and Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Cock-tailed Tyrant and the elusive Dickcissel to the more patronizing Jameson’s and Woodhouse’s Antpecker. One might wonder if Jameson and Woodhouse named these birds themselves, and if so, why?

Bird taxonomists have not been so outspoken with their affection of the humour of the rear end. You have to explore the Latin names to find the Arses (monarch flycatcher), Poospiza (warbling-finch) or Turdus (thrushes). To their defence there are some true jesters: a recently extinct parrot from the Marquesas Islands got the name vidivici (Steadman & Zarriello, 1987). The genus of course was Vini (in use since 1831). A Hawaiian Harrier Hawk in the genus Circus got the name dossenus (Olson & James, 1991). Dossenus means clown or jester in Latin, “without which one cannot have a circus.”

The Father of Natural History Linnaeus named the Hoopoe Upupa epops, almost 250 years before this activity became popular. (The Upupa part of course being street for “your papa” thus making the name into a question, allegedly from the male Hoopoe’s desire to have a mate with a technically advanced father). The same year he named the Roseate Spoonbill Ajaia ajaja. “Aj” is equvivalent to “Ouch” in Swedish, which makes me wonder if his secretary misheard him when he dropped something heavy (e.g. a spoonbill) on his toe.

Since there’s usually a valid etymology to the names it’s hard to accuse taxonomists of being sexist or chauvinist, but would the names be different if the natural sciences historically had been a foremost female affair? Would the Pitta be named Pitt instead (incidentally, Pitt is slang for penis in Swedish so there we go again)? Would we have stood in awe admiring Bulge-Chested Banderas, Tender Lovebirds or Dark Italian Strangerbirds? One will never know.